A small group of intrepid Janeites, including myself, have begun a group read of The Austen Papers, published in 1942 by Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh (RAAL). Why? Because this book is the only published source extant that provides the text of a number of letters written by members of the Austen family other than JA herself. And so it is a perfect followup to the group read of JA’s letters that we are just winding up in Janeites and Austen-L very shortly, as we approach the 197th anniversary of JA’s sadly premature death at age 41 in 1817.
RAAL was a descendant of JA’s eldest brother, James Austen, and the co-author with his nephew William Austen-Leigh, in 1913, of JA’s Life & Letters: A Family Record. You may recall that I very recently strongly praised RAAL and WAL for their discreet but clear correction of one of the most egregious editorial frauds by JEAL in his 1870 Memoir, when JEAL deliberately altered JA’s explicit attribution of blame for her own serious health crisis several months before her eventual death from the disinheritance of the Austen women by Uncle Leigh Perrot to Henry Austen’s bankruptcy.
Well, today, in reading the beginning of The Austen Papers, and revisiting the poignant memorandum left behind by Elizabeth Weller, a matriarch in Austen family history, I understood, for the first time, yet another irony in the long serpentine history of Austen biography. And the irony that came into focus for me today also involves RAAL (with WAL), this time as tellers of another significant and (from the perspective of the Myth of Jane Austen that JEAL created, and Le Faye still seeks to keep in place) inconvenient truth about JA’s life and novels.
The irony, as you will see very shortly, is that this time around RAAL and WAL played the reverse role they played re the aggravation of JA’s serious illness. I.e., whereas in 1913, they corrected an editorial fraud by JEAL, the most influential earlier misleading Austen biographer, this time around, in 1989, it was the most influential later misleading biographer, Deirdre Le Faye, who did her best to UNDO RAAL's & WAL’s truthtelling!
I believe I’ve caught Le Faye red-handed (or should I say, red-penciled), and I think it’s not even close to being ambiguous—read on and see if you agree.
The first section of The Austen Papers presents in full a lengthy memorandum written by Elizabeth Austen (nee Weller), who was JA’s great grandmother on JA’s father’s side. No further set-up is required, it’s all provided in the following excerpt from the 1913 JA’s Life & Letters, describing what happened after Elizabeth’s husband John Austen died unexpectedly:
“This last John settled at Broadford (while his father remained at Grovehurst), and, when quite young, married Elizabeth Weller. He seems to have been a careless, easy-going man, who thought frugality unnecessary, as he would succeed to the estate on his father's death; but he died of consumption in 1704, a year before that event took place. One of his sisters married into the family of the Stringers (neighbours engaged in the same trade as the Austens), and numbered among her descendants the Knights of Godmersham--a circumstance which exercised an important influence over the subsequent fortunes of the Austen family.
Elizabeth Weller, a woman happily cast in a different mould from her husband, was an ancestress of Jane Austen who deserves commemoration. Thrifty, energetic, a careful mother, and a prudent housewife, she managed, though receiving only grudging assistance from the Austen family, to pay off her husband's debts, and to give to all her younger children a decent education at a school at Sevenoaks; the eldest boy (the future squire) being taken off her hands by his grandfather. [This almost exclusive care of the old man for his eldest grandson may possibly have been the model for the action of old Mr. Dashwood at the beginning of Sense and Sensibility.]”
When I wrote my post in Oct 2011 entitled “ "The Whole World is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expence of another": ONE Interesting Answer Solves TWO Austen Puzzles"....
….and I presented detailed textual evidence to support my argument that the disinheritance of the Dashwood women at the very beginning of S&S, as well as all the “Johns” of S&S, were nothing less than an uncannily close rewriting by JA of that real Austen family history, I had no idea that RAAL and WAL had gotten there first exactly one century earlier (albeit it in a passing, hedged suggestion)—so I am glad, first of all, to give them proper credit as the originators of this major discovery.
As soon as I read the above passage from the 1913 book, and after I registered a major increase in my admiration for RAAL and WAL’s late Victorian moral courage in telling the truth about their own family heritage, I recalled that Le Faye’s 1989 Family Record was an expansion of the 1913 Life & Letters incorporating ¾ of a century’s additional data and insight. That it is literally an expansion is readily apparent from any reading of the two side by side—you can see that Le Faye incorporates the 1913 book, and frequently preserves the identical verbiage thereof, but also edits it throughout, with un-noted deletions and additions all over the place.
So, I wondered, is it possible that Le Faye would have left that explosive footnote in her 1989 magnum opus? And that is what led me to catch Le Faye ‘red-penciled’!
First, please take careful note of that last footnote, in which RAAL and WAL in 1913 suggest that JA may well have had in mind her great grandmother’s lengthy account of her lifelong, titanic, but successful, financial struggles to keep herself and her children from dire poverty, when JA wrote her devastating satire of greed in the realm of inheritance in Chapter 2 of S&S. For those, like me, for whom connections between Austen’s novels and Austen’s life and family are paramount in interest, the footnote was far and away the most significant aspect of the story of Elizabeth Weller—it is the “punchline” that matters most.
Now, take a look at the parallel passage in Le Faye’s 1989 Family Record (actually, in the 2003 second edition of same). I’ve put in ALL CAPS the verbiage LeFaye used to add to or replace the 1913 language, and carets to show deletions. Notice what’s missing from the end of Le Faye’s version:
“This YOUNGER John seems to have been a careless, easy-going man, who thought frugality unnecessary, as he would succeed to the estate on his father's death; but he died of TUBERCULOSIS in 1704, PREDECEASING HIS FATHER BY MORE THAN a year LEAVING SEVEN YOUNG CHILDREN AS WELL AS DEBTS UNSUSPECTED BY HIS WIFE.
Elizabeth Weller, a woman happily cast in a different mould from her husband, was an ancestress of Jane Austen who deserves commemoration. THOUGH RECEIVING ONLY GRUDGING ASSISTANCE FROM HER MISERLY FATHER-IN-LAW BEFORE HE DIED TOO SUDDENLY IN 1705, OF AN ILLNESS THAT ‘SEIZ’D HIS BRAINS’, SHE PROVED HERSELF [T]hrifty, energetic, a careful mother, and a prudent housewife, AND managed BOTH to pay off her husband's debts, and to give to all her younger SONS a decent education. [followed by additional details re the education of Elizabeth Weller’s younger sons].” END QUOTE
My point being, as you have already no doubt discerned, is that Le Faye took it upon herself to add all sorts of extraneous details that could only be of interest to extremely hardcore Austen scholars focused on the minutiae of the history of the Austen family, but she COMPLETELY DELETED, without so much as a by-your-leave, RAAL’s and WAL’s 1913 footnote!!!
Now, it is not rocket science to infer why Le Faye would have done this—it is her M.O., visible in dozens of instances I have documented over the past 8 years, to do her best to put the kibosh on anything in JA’s biography that would seem to suggest anything Le Faye, in her imperial judgment, finds inappropriate or disturbing.
And the idea in that 1913 footnote, written by a highly reputable male Austen descendant (and so not dismissable as “anachronistic, irresponsible, modern, ideology–driven ravings”) that clearly appalled Le Faye was that JA, in what were literally JA’s first published words, i.e., in Chapters 1 & 2 of her first published novel, S&S, would take on, full-on, a foundational aspect of her family heritage. How could Le Faye allow to go out under her name a suggestion, no matter how mildly presented, that JA had made it her highest and most pressing authorial priority to expose a grotesquely unjust financial abuse of her great grandmother by her great-great-grandfather, via the most withering satire in all of JA’s novels. In addition to which, Chapter 2 of S&S has also been cited by hundreds of commentators, professional and amateur alike, as the most famous Shakespearean allusion in all of JA’s novels. So there is no more signature and high profile passage in an Austen novel.
Clearly, Le Faye could not abide even the careful suggestion of such a damning veiled allusion by JA in such a passage. Because that would expose, in the most sensational way possible, the Biggest of the Big Lies perpetrated by Henry Austen, JEAL, and other conservative Austen biographers, i.e., that JA did not write about real people in her novels.
And so, what better way to put the kibosh on that very inconvenient suggestion by RAAL and WAL (of whom I am now a major fan!) than to take possession of the 1913 text, incorporate it whole, and then simply delete the offending footnote, knowing that very few scholars would find any reason to go back and read the 1913 work. Because, after all, Le Faye was making the clear representation to the Janeite world that her 1989 bio would give us everything good from the 1913 bio, plus a lot more good stuff. So why look behind her?
And that, more than any special insightfulness on my part, is why no Austen scholar I can detect online ever mentioned the Elizabeth Weller connection to S&S between 1989 and 2010 (when it was mentioned in passing in a JASA article here…
http://jasa.com.au/jane-austens-family/ Joanna Penglase 3/1/10
….and also why I was the first person, in 2013, to rediscover the allusion, and then to really take the idea seriously, and dive deeply into the texts of both S&S and the Austen family papers to more fully document the full scope of that allusion, including in particular the reason for all the “Johns’ in S&S, which arises, I argued in my 2013 post, from all the Johns in Jane Austen paternal family lineage!
Just ask yourself if that two-decades-long invisibility would have occurred, during the spike of Austenmania, had Le Faye, from her dominating perch of decades-long influence over Austen biographical studies, made the editorial choice NOT to delete that suggestion.
Badly done, Deirdre, as Knightley would have said!
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